Mauritius conjures up all kinds of images for the 21st-century traveller. Golden beaches a short flight down the Indian Ocean from Dubai. Fields of swaying sugar cane giving way to luxury hotels. The former home of the dodo, one of the most famously extinct creatures on the planet. But scratch the surface, as the Booker-nominated author Romesh Gunesekera did on a trip many years ago, and a different, more intriguing Mauritius is revealed.
“It has the most curious history,” says the 57-year-old Sri Lankan, “and when it came to writing a new book, I just couldn’t get it out of my head. Unlike many islands, there’s no story of the indigenous population being overrun by empire-building colonialists because, until the Europeans settled in Mauritius, it was completely uninhabited. It became a kind of crossroads for humanity, but because no one can really claim that it was their territory in the first place, it’s a very confusing country.”
In fact, it was just the kind of place that Gunesekera, who appears at this year’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, has always loved writing about – his books regularly return to idyllic islands that have, in some way, been wrecked by mankind. “I accept that,” he laughs, when I point out the similarities. “But then novels in themselves are a bit like an island, a contained place you explore, their covers like the shoreline.”
Such a thoughtful, lyrical view of fiction is mirrored in Gunesekera’s prose – somehow both deceptively simple and intense and vibrant. It means his new book, The Prisoner of Paradise, has a more ambitious aim than simply to record events in 1820s Mauritius immediately before the end of slavery on the island. Even though Gunesekera was intrigued when he found prisoners were transported by the British from Sri Lanka into forced labour camps in Mauritius, it’s more the story of the new uncertainties of the colonial world, as seen through the eyes of a young English girl.
Lucy Gladwell arrives on the island wide-eyed yet baffled by the restrictions and rules of society in her uncle’s plantation house. And as she gets to know Don Lambodar, a young, attractive translator from Ceylon, she also begins to understand the real Mauritius, one riven by slavery and inequality, and dependent on convict labour from India and Sri Lanka. It’s not giving away too much to reveal that the book doesn’t all end well.
“I’d been rereading Thomas Hardy,” remembers Gunesekera, “and what I admired more than anything else was the bravery of his writing. If he thought the story demanded it, he would make it a tragedy rather than settle for everyone living happily ever after. There’s something wonderful about the people in his tragedies. So when it came to writing Prisoner of Paradise, I knew that I wanted to attempt something similar.”
All of which means, thankfully, that Gunesekera does not resort to pages of explanation about colonial history. Not least because he had to speculate to a certain extent – most of the documented social history of the island comes from the period after that in which the book is set. However, some of his most intriguing ideas stem from such flights of fancy. The beating heart of the book comes when Lucy ponders the paradox of empire. “Do we not adorn their lands, their history, their bodies, with romance, like in Arabia or India?” she asks. “Yet the individual we treat with such violence.”
Gunesekera explains: “In the 1820s Romanticism and Orientalism were big in England. Girls like Lucy would have read Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge but also stories of princesses travelling across India to get married. Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh is the epitome of this, a story of poetry, romance and sultans. And yet this was also a time of Indian slavery, of servitude, where a huge level of intellectual racism existed. The two worlds didn’t quite meet. But I thought they must have rubbed up against each other in people who read extensively – and how they cope with that is really important to the book.”
But perhaps it’s not so surprising that Gunesekera writes so clearly and frankly about the master/servant relationship in both The Prisoner of Paradise and his 1994 Booker-nominated novel, Reef. After all, Gunesekera grew up in Sri Lanka in a family that employed servants itself.
“At the time that was a kind of norm,” he admits. “So yes, perhaps these characters might come from growing up around all that. But the real reason I return to that theme is to try to understand the fundamentals of relationships, how power works.”
And in the end, despite being set in 1825, such timeless concerns do make The Prisoner of Paradise feel pleasingly pertinent – even though Gunesekera was keen not to shoehorn contemporary relevance into the story.
“You know, I hope, say, an Indian migrant worker today might be able to recognise the metaphor running through all the characters in the book. They are all prisoners of their backgrounds in some way, and I think that’s something we all experience as humans.”
Not quite a Mauritian beach read, then. But The Prisoner of Paradise, like its setting, is deeper than that.
The Prisoner of Paradise (Bloomsbury) is out now. The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature runs from March 6 to March 10. Appearances by Romesh Gunesekera will be on March 8, 9 and 10